Reporting from Salt Lake City — Utah Sen. Robert F. Bennett was defeated Saturday in his bid for reelection, making the three-term Republican lawmaker the first congressional incumbent to fall in this angry election season.
Bennett, who upset many conservative activists with his willingness to work across party lines, became the first Utah senator denied renomination in 70 years. More broadly, his defeat at the state GOP convention made him a symbol of the festering anti-Washington, anti-establishment sentiment coursing through the country.
"He's had his chance," said Nick Whitehead, 17, a volunteer who greeted delegates at the downtown convention center with a giant placard touting businessman Tim Bridgewater, one of two Bennett rivals to advance to a June runoff. "It's time for new blood."
Bennett, 76, whose father served four terms in the Senate, was not particularly unpopular among the bulk of Utah Republicans. He fell victim, however, to the state's unusual nomination process, which placed the choice in the hands of the most conservative — and most agitated — activists in one of the reddest states in the country.
A tearful Bennett told reporters there was not much he would have done differently. "The political atmosphere, obviously, has been toxic, and it's very clear some of the votes that I have cast have added to the toxic environment," he said. "Looking back on them, with one or two very minor exceptions, I wouldn't have cast them any differently, even if I'd known at the time it would cost me my career."
A conservative by most yardsticks, Bennett ran afoul of many "tea party" acolytes and grass-roots Republicans by supporting the 2008 Wall Street bailout — which he deemed necessary to save the economy — and by working with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon on a healthcare bill that would have required Americans to purchase insurance. The provision was similar to the plan President Obama signed into law over the opposition of Bennett and every other Republican member of Congress.
Bennett also antagonized many by breaking his pledge to serve just two terms in Washington — though he managed to win reelection in 2004 without GOP opposition.
Under the nominating system, the field of candidates was culled to three in the first round of balloting Saturday. Bennett survived that initial vote and made one final plea to the nearly 3,500 delegates before they cast ballots a second time.
The question, Bennett said, was which one of the finalists could most effectively thwart President Obama and the Democratic leaders in Congress. "Don't take a chance on a newcomer," the senator fairly shouted. "Keep a veteran on the floor when you're playing the championship game, because there's too much at stake to try things with a rookie."
But convention delegate Argie Shumway, like many, dismissed the importance of seniority, which Bennett made the centerpiece of his campaign.
"We want principled senators in there, even if they're freshman senators," said Shumway, 70, a retired flight attendant from Provo, who supported attorney Mike Lee.
After a third round of balloting, neither Bridgewater nor Lee emerged with the 60% needed to win the nomination outright. Their runoff on June 22 will be decided by GOP voters statewide. Given the party's overwhelming advantage in Utah, Republicans are expected to hold onto Bennett's seat regardless of who runs in November.